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Sarah Waters speaks to Pinkwire editor Danielle Carter about what this month means and whether she has abandoned lesbian literature altogether
Sarah Waters is one of those people that you meet and you really more than twenty-four hours to digest.
Not 17 hours ago I was sitting entranced whilst being given a personal tour around one of the great literary minds of our time.I feel like I have over-indulged on a Victorian feast and I have just taken off my corset.
I met Sarah in the back room, of a library in Kent. In fact it was in Tonbridge where I grew up and went to secondary school.
The last time I had walked into that library I was on the arm of my boyfriend, desperately trying to play hide and seek with my lesbian alter-ego that was to come and find me only a matter of years later.
So to return to the scene of the crime only to be in conversation with a woman who has directly changed the foundation and direction of my life through her first foray into literature, Tipping the Velvet was to say in the least ‘trippy’, if I am to revisit my teenager vernacular.
Sarah has just finished a talk with the local LGBT youth group, as I enter the room they are all sitting around excited and engaged, one young girl turns to the rest of the group and says ‘I can’t wait to buy that book’. It was like they had forgotten that the Wii had been invented.
Sarah is just about to give a talk to the seventy-strong gaggle of dedicated readers waiting patiently outside.
I managed to bag fifteen minutes with the nominated Orange and Booker prize writer, whilst she was recharging with a well-earned sandwich....
Sarah is of small stature and has elphin features. She speaks delicately and as you would imagine from an artist she paints with her hands as she talks, moving them in circles as she describes her writing process.
I guess you are expecting to read an utterly gushing piece as I have declared the seminal stake that she lanced through my life. However, it was because of this there was room for great disappointment.
Here is the transcript of my meeting with the greatest lesbian author of all time, Sarah Waters:
So what do you think of LGBT History Month, Do you think that it is important?
Well, that is what I was just talking to them about (youth group) what do young gay people know about their history? Before I came out, when I realised that I was gay I found a book called Surpassing The Love of Men which was sort of a history of lesbian activity. I couldn’t believe it because I had no idea that there was a lesbian presence in history.
It really made a big difference to me because it is easy to feel isolated and you are young and gay especially and to know that you have a history I think it is really affirming so I do think that LGBT History Month is important.
But what they (Youthgroup) also said is that they would like books about really modern gay life, very positive portrayals about positive gay life now which was interesting for me because at my age I take my lesbian community for granted and I am actually less interested in the present because I live in it and I am more interested about the past.
Have you ever thought about writing about the present?
A bit, although if it was set in the present I don’t know if I would necessarily write about lesbians like I do when I go to the past.
Your last book Little Stranger wasn’t about lesbians, did you find there was much backlash from the community?
There was an angry letter to DIVA magazine which came really early on, my heart sank when I read it because I thought all my lesbian readers are going to feel like this and I was very touched that DIVA the next month wrote a response to it which was very much on my side.
There has been the odd thing, a Canadian woman reviewed the book for a magazine and she focused on the fact that there weren’t any lesbians in it so much that I felt she wasn’t even seeing the book and that to me feels really sad and a bit depressing. I was anxious about it but what has been really nice is that I have just had good feedback from lesbian and straight readers too. I suppose I would like to think that there is more to my books to attract the lesbians than just the lesbian content, the stories, the characterisation and the atmosphere are always going to be in my books whether there are lesbians in there or not but at the same time I totally understand, we don’t see ourselves represented that much that we can afford to lose somebody that was representing us. I don’t feel like I have turned my back on lesbians. (Laughs)
How do you feel about LGBT Press?
I feel that the internet has opened up more forums, I am in my forties and a lot of the gay media looks very young to me.
What do you think about their being an LGBT History Month event in Tonbridge?
I grew up in a small Welsh town and it would have been unthinkable to come out at my school, it wasn’t a tough school but it was just off the radar, there were boys that got called ‘poofs’ but no one would have ever dreamed about coming out.
There would have been no support for them if they had. My mum and she said recently said that there are a couple of gay blokes who have come out and I thought ‘Oh my God’. It is just that young people now feel that they can come out and ok they might get bullied for it but there are LGBT groups like this one where they can be safe.
Does literature play a part in our history?
Yes I am sure it does I would like to think that lots of people have read my novels who would not have thought that they would have enjoyed a lesbian novel and actually through reading my novels they crudely realise that lesbians are just like them.
I know we always have to go on about how much we are like heterosexuals to be normalised, just to be seen as part of life not exclusive, so I hope that novels play a part in that.
Going forward what would you like to see happen to the LGBT community?
Well I suppose I want to see the gains that we have made reinforced and more gains made. I think gay people are always aware that we are on shaky ground and that the tide can turn against us.
People can suddenly become more conservative, money that is used to support lesbian and gay support groups can be withdrawn and it is scary that at the same time we seem to be making enormous legislative gains. There are other parts of the world where things seem to be moving backwards if anything. I hope we just keep moving forward.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have just started working on my next book, not writing but researching.
Do you think your next book with be lesbian?
Yes it is.
Sarah Waters speaks to LGBT History Month Magazine editor Danielle Carter about what this month means and whether she has abandoned lesbian literature altogether
Did you feel that you had to do another lesbian book?
No not at all, it was definitely an issue I won’t lie. The last book I had a really clear idea for and it just wasn’t a lesbian book. Usually with me I start looking for lesbians and that is true of the new book so I think it will have some lesbian action in it.
Are you looking forward to the talk tonight, do you get nervous?
Yes I am looking forward to it and I do get a bit nervous but once I start I am fine usually (Sarah grips the table and says ‘I will probably be a wreck now’ and laughs)
It is nice to meet readers. I have been invited to a couple but I am off to Australia next week on work to do a book tour so my February is limited and this one sounded like a nice one to do.
So did she disappoint? Far from it. She is just what I hoped that she would be, I stayed for the talk. I watched the room fill up with tweed and anorack wearing lesbians. All sitting with their copies of ‘Tipping the Velvet’ and ‘Fingersmith’.
Sarah had managed to pull a lesbian community together that I wasn’t aware exsisted in the home counties. It became clear; quickly how people believed in the world she had created. Sarah spoke for over an hour and a half. She told us how she makes sure she writes 1000 words a day and how she can’t quite believe that she writes for a living. She worries that she is a fraud and will get found out.
There are few women who have actually become a voice for the lesbian community. Although it is largely a fictional voice Sarah is a spokeswoman who is intelligent and considered, she proudly proclaims that she is ‘middle-brow’ and this really is the lost and unrepresented demographic, which, is probably why she has become such a figurehead for the community.
For women who do not fit into the scene, who don’t have a gaydar profile and will like the idea of a Friday night to include a bottle of Shiraz and a good book Sarah has given them what they were looking for, without patronising or agonising.
Sarah is a historical writer that shoots you right between the eyes with her Dickensian ability to conjur a world in which we can all succomb and more importantly as lesbians, fit.
The talk is wound up, I decide not to go over and see Sarah as she is facing a queue of middle-aged women, peppered with a few male counterparts. I walk outside and immediately take out my phone, I call my ex-girlfriend / best friend (obviously)
“You won’t believe where I have just been…”
“With Sarah Waters, in Tonbridge library, opposite my old school at an LGBT History Month event, How ridiculous is that?…”
“Best night ever…”
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